There was a thread of stern if not defensive outrage in Barack Obama's address at the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday. The Illinois Democrat did not raise his voice, nor did his facial expression reflect a sense of anger. But he was pointed in his criticism and direct in lambasting the type of campaign his Republican opponent, John McCain, is running.
"Yesterday, Senator McCain came before you," said Obama. "He is a man who has served this nation honorably, and he correctly stated that one of the chief criteria for the American people in this election is going to be who can exercise the best judgment as Commander in Chief. But instead of just offering policy answers, he turned to a typical laundry list of political attacks. He said that I have changed my position on Iraq when I have not. He said that I am for a path of "retreat and failure." And he declared, "Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president" -- suggesting, as he has so many times, that I put personal ambition before my country. That is John McCain's prerogative. He can run that kind of campaign, and -- frankly -- that's how political campaigns have been run in recent years. But I believe the American people are better than that. I believe that this defining moment demands something more of us."
It is a vintage Obama line: deploring the tactics of his opponent as a method of rising above the fray. And, indeed, later in the address -- which was focused on redefining proper judgment on Iraq (why, Obama asked, should we give McCain a pass on his false predictions leading up to the invasion?) -- the presumptive Democratic nominee again chastised his challenger for resorting to the politics of the past.
"One of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism," he said, to applause. "I have never suggested that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now, it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same. Let me be clear: I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain."
It's curious to see how this method of campaigning, which was effective in the primary campaign, will play out in the general. Obama's substantive critiques of McCain's foreign policy -- like asking why the Arizona Republican nominee would "follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell" but not target him in Pakistan without that country's permission -- were equally if not more effective. Moreover, there is a growing list of Democratic observers who are pining for a more aggressive posture in which Obama is not just parlaying the McCain attack de jour, but dictating the campaign theme.